The Purinton Primer: My Day with Jay Gatsby

Like any good drama major, I am a theater addict. Not only am I lucky enough to attend a school where there is basically a show every single weekend, but I also intently follow the theatrical goings-on across the country and especially in my hometown of New York. At lunch, it’s fairly common to see me in Peirce poring over The New York Times arts section and excitedly screaming at my friends things like “Guys! Can you believe that Drood is being revived with Chita Rivera playing Princess Puffer?! Aren’t you soooooooo excited?”

As you can see, my friends can’t believe it either.

Any break from Kenyon is an opportunity for me to attend as much theater as my parents are willing to pay for I can. This spring break was no exception, and my days were filled with theater. Notable productions that I saw over the break included a really fantastic play about a hand puppet who is possessed by the devil and a show that I have been wanting to see since I read about it one fateful day in the Times: a show entitled Gatz at the Public Theater.

Gatz, one of the best-received shows in recent years, was described by Times critic Ben Brantley as “The most remarkable achievement in theater not only of this year but also of this decade.” So, you know. Pretty good. This remarkable achievement also happens to be an eight-hour event that requires a dinner break and two intermissions. That’s because the play itself is the text of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby being read aloud in its entirety. Including all the occurrences of “he said” and “she said.” So, basically, it is a dense 218-page script.

I Googled the phrase “giant book” and wanted to make a snarky comment about a big book being the script for Gatz, but this photo turned up and it is much better.

I have to say that despite reading about the production in depth, I didn’t really know what to expect upon entering the theater. I was certainly excited for the show, but despite its incredibly positive critical reaction, I was skeptical. There was a certain sense of foreboding upon entering, the way anyone would feel if they were about to try and sit through an eight-hour play or, alternatively, try to watch The Aviator, a film that somehow manages to feel 10 times longer than its almost three hour run time.

This film was released in 2004. Eight years later and I’m pretty sure it still hasn’t ended. I hate this movie.

Not only was the play’s length troubling, but I also couldn’t help but worry about the play’s content. This has nothing to do with the text being The Great Gatsby. After all, this is a novel that is considered the greatest American novel ever written. So, you know. Also pretty good.

Good work, Francis. You are not crap at writing.

What worried me, however, was that this production was basically going to be a book being read aloud to me. And something about this conceit struck me as simply unbearable. I love books, but the experience of reading a good book and of seeing a good play are completely separate and I simply couldn’t fathom how the two could possibly be combined successfully. This isn’t to say that I expected Gatz to be bad — I just was hesitant about whether it would be as good as everyone says it is and was and, if so, how they would manage to pull it off.

My ultimate verdict is that Gatz doesn’t quite live up to the hype … but is still pretty damn good. What was fascinating about the show was that it specifically examined the process of reading. The show opened simply, with a man in an office (the brilliant Scott Shepherd) who randomly finds a copy of the novel and begins to read it because his computer isn’t working. Even as office life goes on around him, he is completely oblivious, absorbed in the world of the novel. As the play progresses, the office and his co-workers begin to enter the world of West Egg. Slowly, costumes change slightly to become more appropriate to the story and more and more of the show becomes dialogue (for the first half hour, it is simply Shepherd reading the book in monologue).

What resulted was a wonderful, familiar depiction of what it is like to get lost in a book. The two experiences were not at odds; this was unmistakably a play celebrating the act of reading. The relationship between a book and its reader ended up being the main plot.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned, the show made a slow transformation into the world of the play. While this effect was necessary to keep the show from feeling too stale, it became more and more like a typical play and, no matter how good the material, nothing could sustain the time that it took to unravel. As it was, the play had numerous interesting moments, but any moment that the play didn’t work, it was pretty unbearable.

Also, the actress who played Jordan Baker was a second grade schoolteacher. When I read this fact in her bio, I thought it was pretty neat, but it soon became apparent why she was a teacher and not an actress. I say this not to be mean, but simply because she gave one of the most uninspiring and wooden performances I have seen in a while, which made her stick out uncomfortably in an otherwise exceptional cast.

As I left the theater, I had to wonder whether it was worth it. Yes, I’d enjoyed it and was caught up in the world, but I didn’t know whether it was brilliant enough to merit using up basically an entire day of my break. SBut even now that break is over, the show continues to swirl around in my mind. It has stayed with me to the point that, when I sat down to write a Thrill post, I couldn’t think of writing about anything else, so distinct was my need to write about this show. So, yes, I guess it was worth it.

That being said: in my next post, I will hopefully talk about something more relevant and interesting. I thank my readers for indulging me in this post as I write about a show that most of you have not and will never see. As a thank you, here is a video of red pandas playing in the snow.

One response

  1. Pingback: The Purinton Primer: In Which Miles Gets Emotional and Reminiscent « The Thrill

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